By Jennifer Lahl and Matthew Eppinette
Recently, Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Bioethics, posted on the journal’s blog a very brief and highly dismissive review of / comment on our film, Anonymous Father’s Day. The substance of her criticism, entitled “Are ‘Anonymous Fathers’ Really A Problem?” is that our organization, The Center for Bioethics and Culture, is on a “crusade against artificial reproduction,” and that our film is simply another entry in our greater efforts at opposing anything and everything that involves biotechnology.
Ironically, the CBC folks don’t decry adoption, which results in the same lack of knowledge about biological parents, nor do they denounce adopting embryos to prevent them from being incinerated. Why is sperm donation so exceptional and problematic? Other than, of course, that it involves biotechnology?
I await an answer.
It is difficult to know exactly how to respond to this criticism, since it so utterly fails to engage with the substance of the film or with our larger work. Indeed, we cannot determine whether Dr. Johnson McGee has even seen the film, since the only section of the film she (mis)references—”a ‘secret’ akin to a time bomb waiting to go off” (Barry actually says “land mines”)—appears in the film’s trailer, which is available on YouTube and on the film’s website.
The implication of her conclusion is that, of course, we are uncritically enthusiastic about adoption and embryo adoption; we are simply opposed to anything and everything that has to do with biotechnology. The truth of the matter, though, is that while adoption is and has been a tremendously good thing in the lives of many, its history is not without problems. Some mothers were coerced and even forced into giving up their children; some children grew up with secrets and lies, and with questions of identity and place that bear many similarities to the stories of the donor-conceived women and men in Anonymous Father’s Day.
Embryo adoption, too, does not leave us untroubled. First and foremost, we stand with many others in being concerned about the creation and long-term storage of so-called “spare” or “surplus” embryos. In addition, it seems reasonable to expect that those who were adopted as embryos will have some of the same questions about identity, place, and family that donor-conceived persons face.
Ultimately, however, there is a stark contrast between adoption (and embryo adoption), which seek to address existing situations, and reproductive technologies that involve spending thousands and thousands of dollars to create situations that need remedying.
To criticize our work as simply an opposition to biotechnology is to misunderstand, or worse misrepresent, our fundamental concerns about the protection of human life and our views on the importance of bodily existence and its implications for sex and procreation. While we do not delve into all of these topics in this film, our views on these issues are not hidden as both of us have written and spoken on these and other topics for several years. Often these concerns are bound up with various biotechnology, and more to the point, specific uses of biotechnologies, especially within fertility medicine, but to assert that we are simply opposed to biotechnology is to caricature our views and our work.
This film is not a distillation of all our concerns. Rather it is but one example of the ways in which our fundamental concerns impact the lives of ordinary people. Anonymous Father’s Day is an attempt to bring the perspective of the very people who were conceived via sperm donation into conversations about the use of sperm donation. As Diane Allen says in the film, “If we are going to have these technologies, then they need to work first and foremost for the people they directly affect. And although that can seem like it’s the patient, in reality it’s really the children who are being born.”
We are not alone in our concerns about anonymous fathers and about donor conception. In addition to the donor-conceived people, researchers, and activists interviewed in the film, many other donor-conceived persons have concerns about anonymous sperm donation and about donor conception, several of whom blog about their perspectives and their concerns. We have also been contacted by mothers who used donor sperm to conceive children as well as by sperm donors who resonate with the concerns raised in our film. It is also worth noting that the donor-conceived people in our film do not all agree with one another about the proper response to anonymous fathers.
Further, these concerns are not limited to our own shores. The London-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics currently has a project underway to “explore the ethical issues that arise around the disclosure of information in connection with donor-conceived people.” In the Australian state of Victoria, a parliamentary committee has recommended that donor-conceived persons should be told the identity of their biological parent, even if the sperm donor was originally promised anonymity. And, as we highlight in the film, a case regarding sperm-donor anonymity is currently working its way through Canadian court system, and will likely end up before the Supreme Court of Canada.
In answer to the question, “Are ‘Anonymous Fathers’ Really a Problem?” our response is “yes, and we are only beginning to find out just how much of a problem.”
We have been very encouraged this week to read the dialogue between Slate’s William Saletan and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat. It is an example of a substantive, civil, and even cheerful exchange between two people who have very different views. Such exchanges are possible only when all parties are willing to do the difficult work of seeking to understand fully the positions of others. Unfortunately, Dr. Johnson McGee’s post shows no evidence that she has made any effort at all to understand our position. Instead, she criticizes a caricature of our work.
Finally, we would like to give Dr. Johnson McGee the benefit of the doubt regarding her use of the term “crusade” to describe our work. Perhaps it was a poorly considered word choice in a hastily written blog post. If so, then we would like to bring to her attention that its connotations are not helpful to a substantial discussion of important ideas.
At the same time, however, we do not want to be passive-aggressive with regard to this matter, making some subtle dig by simply bringing up the use of the word “crusade.” We will state it plainly: if you wish to criticize our work because we are Christians, then please do so directly. We make no secret of the fact that we are Christians, nor do we make any apologies for addressing the issues of bioethics from a perspective that is informed by one of the world’s great religious traditions.
To criticize a caricature of our views or to mock and dismiss our work because we are Christians is to demonstrate an intellectual indolence that is beneath the standards of the American Journal of Bioethics and that is in direct opposition to the character of the entire history of the field of bioethics.
Jennifer Lahl is the executive producer, director, and co-writer of Anonymous Father’s Day and the founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture.
Matthew Eppinette is the associate producer and co-writer of Anonymous Father’s Day and new media manager at The Center for Bioethics and Culture.